You asked for it

Written on 01 August, 2008 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories Email MarketingTags spam

Email marketing may well be a hugely effective form of online marketing, but to avoid huge penalties under spam legislation, your recipients have to agree to receive your material.

This is why email marketing is fantastic at building repeat business among established customers, rather than acquiring new ones. But that is not a negative. Far from it. It means you are communicating your offers and marketing message to the people who have already proven to be responsive to your offer.

So how do you build a large database of consenting customer email addresses quickly and easily?

The Spam Act 2003

In 2003, the Australian government’s Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) took firm action against unsolicited electronic messages with the release of The Spam Act. Fully coming into effect on 10 April 2004, the Act clearly lays out the dos and don’ts of email marketing. The Australian Act has been called one of the world’s toughest legislations on spam. This reflects increasing consumer frustration at the amount of unsolicited email from disreputable sources who continue to evolve more and more ways of infiltrating your inbox.

The Spam Act is very clear on its definition of spam and refers to spam as “unsolicited commercial electronic messaging.”

“To be covered by the spam act, the message must be commercial in nature – for instance offering a commercial transaction, or directing the recipient to a location where a commercial transaction can take place.

There are a large number of commercial electronic messages that can be sent legitimately. They are only considered to be spam if they are sent without the prior consent of the recipient – as unsolicited messages.”

But the Spam Act does contain plenty of useful guidelines for how businesses can legitimately build databases of email addresses for email marketing purposes.

Express and inferred consent

There are two forms of consent defined within the Act – express and inferred. Express covers the instances where there is a clear indication that the recipient has requested to receive the emails to a specific address. Inferred consent is based on the existing relationship between a business and a customer as well as customer behaviour.

Express consent is easy to define. A customer specifically ticks a box or types in an email address in the clear expectation of receiving email communications. Sometimes this can sit on the website as an open invitation. Sometimes it can be a tick box within the checkout process. Either way, the customer is under no illusions that they have chosen to take this option.

Inferred consent covers those situations where there is an expectation of further email contact, even if it hasn’t explicitly been stated. For example, if a consumer enters their email online as part of a transaction or in registering a product or warranty, the assumption is that there will be some email contact. The nature of that additional contact is usually outlined on the site, sometimes within the Terms and Conditions, suggesting that the email address may be used for additional communications. Human reality is that not everyone reads the Terms and Conditions when they tick the box on a website, but that doesn’t mean consent hasn’t been given. The downside of this approach is that consumers may not be aware of what they have agreed to and may not understand that your email campaign is not spam when it turns up in their inbox.

But, if there is already an ongoing email relationship between you and your customer, for example through day-to-day transactions related to their account, the relationship has been established to infer consent.

What the customer sees as spam?

It is possible to adhere stringently to the letter of the Spam Act and still have customers identify your legitimate emails as spam. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

Obviously, not everyone has read the Act and has a clear understanding of the legal definitions of spam. A recipient may not understand why they have received your email newsletter, especially if it has been some time since they visited your store or completed a transaction with you. If this is possible, it may be worthwhile including a note within the email to explain the relationship. For example, remind the reader that they are receiving the email because they indicated their willingness to receive further communications from you during a transaction. If you have a number of methods of acquiring email addresses, it may become too complex to tailor each email to the individual circumstances of the reader, but some form of explanation should be attempted. This may be enough to clear up the misapprehension that the email is spam.

Another misapprehension common among consumers is that spam refers to frequent email. Sending one email a month may not cause a customer to identify it as spam, but send them one a week and they may. Interestingly, the legal definition of spam has absolutely nothing to do with frequency or bulk. A single email to one person can be identified as spam if it is commercial in nature and unsolicited by the recipient. Conversely, a daily email to thousands of consumers can be entirely legitimate as long as the method in which the emails were acquired satisfies the legal definition of express or inferred consent.

This isn’t to say that consumers should gracefully accept a deluge of marketing from you once you have legitimately collected their email address. If they do become irritated by the amount of material you send them, they will more than likely unsubscribe. Be careful to balance the frequency of your emails against customer expectations.

The quality of the email can also attract complaints of spam. We have all received shoddy and inappropriate emails over our years on the net. Our experiences with these emails will colour the way we receive any future marketing material. If your email looks generic (ie; it doesn’t clearly identify the recipient and the sender), contains words and phrases commonly found in spam, has little quality content and has a poorly designed template, the reader may consider it as spam rather than a welcome addition to their trusted email list.

What’s in it for them?

Consumers don’t want to consent to email that has no value to them. If your email campaign is purely about hammering your customers with your sales message, readers may start unsubscribing very quickly. Recipients want a reason to subscribe – and that reason isn’t to make you feel better.

The Netregistry newsletter avoids merely plugging our products in favour of informative reading that we hope is of interest to our customers. Feedback has indicated that this is indeed the case. With the addition of competitions – which now run monthly in the newsletter in conjunction with Nett Magazine – our newsletter offers additional free benefits to Netregistry customers. Something for nothing.

One classic email marketing campaign is that run by Borders bookstore. Every customer in their store is asked at the checkout whether they would like to add themselves to the mailing list. The customer is then told that the mailing list is how Borders does its promotions. That is, the specials available in the email are not available anywhere else.

Every week, I receive an email from Borders and I always, always, open it. The reason is because there is something in it for me. I want to know what the week’s vouchers are. I want the bargain.

By opening the email, I’ve also exposed myself to the additional marketing material within, which, of course, was the intention all along. But the technique works. By planning the email campaign around ‘what’s in it for the customer’, Borders very quickly built a hugely powerful campaign with an extremely high percentage of recipients opening the email.

Another way Borders acquires customer emails is through competitions. Every few months, Borders runs a contest on the website. To enter, the visitor has to enter their email to subscribe to the newsletter.

If you can identify an offer or an incentive for your customers to request your newsletter, you can dramatically increase the reach and effectiveness of your campaign.

Consent versus spam

Email marketing should not be about finding the quickest way to get the most email addresses. It should be about encouraging customers to participate. By engaging customer consent, you increase response and reduce complaints.